Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich by Joachim C. Fest
Rating: ••• (Recommended)
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Historian Joachim Fest distills information from hundreds of sources to present a tightly written account of Hitler’s final days in a new book, Inside Hitler’s Bunker. If you haven’t read much about this part of World War II, this is the best account you’re likely to find. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 3 “The War Is Lost!,” pp. 44-55:
Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday, on April 20, brought the leaders of the regime together for the last time: Goebbels, Himmler, Bormann, Speer, Ley, Ribbentrop, and several Gauleiter (district party leaders), as well as the heads of the Wehrmacht. Goring had come from Karinhall, his hunting lodge. Early that morning he had dispatched to South Germany twenty-four trucks loaded with antiques, paintings, and furniture he had collected over the years. He would follow later. As soon as the column of vehicles was out of sight, he walked down his driveway toward the street. On the way there, his face showing no emotion, rather an almost businesslike calm, he inspected the preparations that had been made to blow up Karinhall. Glancing at the tangle of fuses, he said to the bodyguard at his side, “When you’re Crown Prince, you have to do these things sometimes.” Then he left for the birthday party. Eva Braun had arrived unexpectedly at the bunker a few days before, and had moved into the back rooms of the Führer’s quarters.
The celebration was moved from the bunker to the larger, more festive rooms of the New Reich Chancellery. With paintings and furniture gone, and signs of repeated bomb damage, these quarters now seemed drab. Still, the gathering of so many uniformed dignitaries did bring back memories of the pomp and splendor so long dispensed with—even though the incessantly howling air-raid sirens further depressed the already bleak mood. After a few brief remarks, Hitler went from group to group, gravely, almost defensively, imploring, accepting congratulations, and offering words of encouragement. Although at first lie seemed thoroughly exhausted and, as one of those present thought, had to work harder than usual to conceal the tremor in his left arm, the forced confidence he was communicating to others appeared to enliven him. To observers he seemed “galvanized.” Meanwhile, outside on Wilhelmstrasse, the Leibstandarte (Hitler’s personal SS division) marched in review past SS Gruppenfuhrer Wilhelm Mohnke.
At some point that
morning the codeword “Clausewitz” was issued,
ordering a state of emergency. It also became known that, days before, Hitler
had prepared for the eventuality of advancing enemy forces dividing the
area. His plan was that the territory still remaining in German hands would
be split into a Northern Command Zone, under Fleet Admiral Karl Dönitz, and a Southern Command Zone, under Field Marshal
Albert Kesseiring. For the well-wishers at the
birthday party this desperate step was just another opportunity to praise the
“military genius” of their Führer, who repeatedly
managed to turn defensive situations into far more advantageous offensive
positions. Goebbels described the two “command
zones” as the arms of a “strategic pincer” that would prepare a “second
But in spite of all the deluded talk about tactical “strokes of genius” and an imminent victory—-improbable though that might seem—most of those gathered there were anxious for the affair to end. All knew that the Red Army was about to complete its encirclement of the city and that there were only two constantly shrinking escape corridors left, one to the north and one to the south. At one point Goring sent an orderly to obtain a realistic estimate of how much longer they could still get through.
Hitler appeared to be dragging out the reception as though he sensed the disdain and impatience of most of those present and wanted to prevent them from leaving. Later, in the large conference room while discussing the strategic military situation, he ordered that the Soviet units, which had advanced to the outer defensive circle in the north and east, be pushed back with all possible force. Once again he was deploying troops that marched solely through his mad imagination and getting bogged down in tactical details, such as where to deploy a self-propelled antitank gun, or the best placement for a machine gun. The military officers listened to his instructions in silence, their expressions immobile. Only Goring—huge and massive— was having trouble hiding his restlessness as he sat opposite Hitler, seemingly counting the minutes that were elapsing in futile talk.
The previous evening Hitler had brought up the question of whether it wouldn’t be more practical to give up the largely indefensible capital where, by now, there were hardly any German troops left. At the same time he indicated it was his intention to take charge in the Southern Command Zone and to continue the fight from Obersalzberg, within sight of the legendary Untersberg. Perhaps in an allusion to his own afterlife, he once again mentioned the Emperor Barbarossa who, as tradition would have it, slept the “sleep of centuries” within the mountain.
had passionately urged him to remain in
Hitler now assured his
listeners that he had sorted things out during the night; he would remain in
the capital. There was a brief, stunned silence; then almost all in the large
conference room implored him to leave
Immediately after Hitler
adjourned the conference, a pale and perspiring Goring bade him good-bye,
citing “urgent tasks in
Some well-wishers had
arrived late, and were waiting not far from the entrance near an area sown
with bomb craters, tree stumps, and fallen trees: a delegation of
battle-weary men from the Frundsberg SS Division
Once Hitler had returned to the bunker, the big exodus began. A long line of cabinet ministers and party chiefs pressed toward him; each said a few embarrassed or forced words of farewell, and left. They were followed by endless columns of trucks. One of Hitler’s adjutants reported that Hitler, “profoundly disappointed, indeed shattered, merely nodded” and, “without saying a word,” allowed these men “whom he had once made powerful” to leave.
While some took to their
heels, others set out for the front accompanied by, as someone put it, the
“fervent good wishes” of the people. At about 10 p.m. Hitler told those
closest to him that he intended to “shake up” his staff. He sent two of his
secretaries, several assistants, the stenographers, as well as his personal
physician, Dr. Morell, to southern
No sooner had the word
spread that government leaders were free to leave, than applicants besieged
the commandant’s house near the Berlin Schloss for
the required permits. More than two thousand travel documents were issued in
the course of a few hours, even though Goebbels had
ordered that no one capable of bearing arms be permitted to leave the city.
That morning Otto Meissner, head of the
Presidential Chancellery, had already checked in by telephone, reporting that
he had gone to
The following morning Hitler was awakened at about nine-thirty, nearly two hours earlier than usual. He was informed that Russian artillery was firing into the center of the city. A little later the news came that the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, and even the Friedrichstrasse station had been hit by shells in quick succession. Shortly thereafter, Hitler, unshaven and visibly distraught, came into the anteroom. His first question was “What’s going on? Where is all this shooting coming from?” When Burgdorf explained that the center of the city had apparently come under fire from an enemy position northeast of Zossen, Hitler turned pale. “Are the Russians that close already?” Then he asked to be connected with General Karl Koller, the Luftwaffe chief of staff. According to Koller’s notes:
Hitler called early in the morning.—”Do
you know that
Koller’s notes continue: “I call the division command post of the antiaircraft unit at the Zoo bunker. In answer to my question I am told that all this to-do is just about a to-cm to 12-cm caliber gun. The antiaircraft unit observed the Russian battery taking up its position in Marzahn that morning; distance to the center of the city, about seven and a half miles. . . . Hitler greets my report on the facts of the situation with disbelief.”
Koller’s notes on this telephone conversation
illustrate Hitler’s delusional mood and his characteristic bias in dealing
with generals as well as with reality. Without knowing the details, he
speaks of “long-range shelling” and freely invents railway batteries and
bridges over the
A short while later, Hitler again on
the telephone. He wants exact figures regarding the ongoing deployment of
aircraft south of
Hitler telephoned again, and again. He wanted information about jet planes
To get an overview of the situation, Koller decided to get in touch with General Krebs. After many futile attempts, he finally reached Krebs at 10:30 p.m. and tried to obtain some clarification about a diversionary attack by SS General Steiner, mentioned by Hitler but about which he himself knew nothing. Hitler unexpectedly cut in. “Suddenly,” notes Koller, “I hear his agitated voice on the line: ‘Do you still have doubts about my order? I think I expressed myself clearly enough. All Luftwaffe forces in the Northern Zone that can be made available for ground action must immediately be supplied to Steiner. Anyone who holds back any units will forfeit his life within five hours. Your own head is on the line.”
A little later Hitler became indignant when none of the stenographers—whom he himself dismissed only hours before— showed up in the conference room where an officer was presenting the situation report. As always, he had only one word to explain any disillusioning setback: “Betrayal!” Later that night Walter Hewel, the Foreign Ministry’s permanent representative on the Führer’s staff, whom Hitler held in high esteem, asked for last-minute instructions and reminded him that this was tile very last chance for political action. Hitler got up. “As he slowly and wearily leaves the room, his feet dragging, he says in a soft, completely changed voice: ‘Politics? I don’t get involved in politics anymore. I detest politics. When I’m dead, you’ll have plenty of political decisions to make.’”
Nerves were frazzled, and more and more frequently the dam, forged of intransigence and false confidence in victory, burst. During Goebbels’s last press conference, held by candlelight in his residence behind windows nailed over with cardboard, the propaganda minister heaped all blame for the failure of the Great Plan on the officer corps and the “reactionaries” with whom they had been compelled to ally themselves. Repeatedly and at great length, he went on about how the old caste had always betrayed him, how rearmament had been neglected in peacetime, how wrong decisions were made during the campaigns against France and the Soviet Union, and how Germany—from the start of the Allied invasion right up to July 20—had failed to act.
Fest wastes few words, and despite Inside Hitler’s Bunker being a translation from German, the power of his sentences remains strong.
Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2004
ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the June 2004 issue of Executive Times
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